Prom Accessories: Corsages, Limousines and Liability Waivers

A vintage photograph recalls a time when parents sent teenagers off to prom after-parties with a simple admonition to behave. Today, hosts are demanding that parents and often, their children, sign liability waivers acknowledging the party’s rules.

Adam Wergeles, a corporate lawyer in Los Angeles, spent hours, if not days, sweating over a legal document this spring. Taking black pen to paper, he x-ed out words, added others, made notations in the margin and sought counsel from another lawyer.

Mr. Wergeles has a lot of professional experience working on securities compliance documents, but this was something different, a liability release he needed to sign in order for his 17-year-old daughter, Emma, to be able to attend an after-prom party with about 90 high school students. The party was to take place at a large rented private home in the Hollywood Hills and would be chaperoned by two adults.

Though Mr. Wergeles agreed that it was fair for parents to share responsibility for any problems that might arise during the party, he was surprised to be presented with a legal document. The vague language of an indemnity clause caused him concern. And as a lawyer, he had a difficult time not vetting every word. “I found myself getting slightly insane,” he said.

His daughter was irritated and embarrassed, particularly after her father called one of her friends to discuss the document (he thought he was calling her parents).

“It was frustrating,” Emma said. “For the past few years, everyone received a liability form for after-prom parties. I’m sure the other parents signed it and went on with their day.”

Emma submitted the edited document and attended the prom and the after-party, at which, she said, her friends celebrated exactly as they would have whether or not their parents had signed a form. “I don’t think it affected anyone’s behavior at all,” she said. (Mr. Wergeles said he was told after the party that the homeowner would most likely not be returning the security deposit.)

In some affluent cities and suburbs, the post-party legal liability waiver is joining the corsage and limousine in the prom panoply.

Parents who host parties and require waivers say they feel awkward asking fellow parents (and often, their children) to sign but ultimately want to encourage a dialogue between adults and children about acceptable behavior. And they think it is only right that accountability be shared should something go wrong. These contracts are probably unenforceable, lawyers said. Many post-prom parties are overnight affairs and are planned, in part, to keep teenagers off the roads.

Most parents receiving release forms understand the desire of hosts to protect themselves while providing a hangout for teenagers after a big dance. But many bristle at the formality of signing legal papers so that their children can participate in what was once a wholesome, if occasionally beer-laden, high school rite of passage.

When one Manhattan couple agreed to host their son’s friends at their Hamptons house after the Horace Mann School prom this spring, the mother emailed a few dozen parents a form headlined, “Activity release of liability; read carefully — this affects your legal rights.” The release contained five clauses. One read, in part, “I recognize that there are certain inherent risks associated with the above described activity and I assume full responsibility for personal injury to myself and other participants.”

An addendum provided rules including, “Keep the volume at a reasonable level outside the house — we need to be respectful of the surrounding area” and “No smoking.” Both the student who had been invited and a parent were asked to sign.

One recipient replied to the emailed group: “We are looking at this document and just wondering where everyone else is coming out on signing this indemnification. Time to engage counsel?”

The father who, with his wife, hosted the party said they made a great effort to create a safe post-prom experience for all. They provided bus transport from the dance in New York City to their house in the Hamptons, and hired two security guards and lifeguards as well. “It can feel ridiculous to take all of these precautions, but when you have a group of 18-years-olds, all parents should share the responsibility for all kids,” said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his children’s privacy.

After the party, he emailed parents, thanking them for sharing their children for the night. “They are a fabulous group, kind, courteous, relaxed and truly warm and considerate of each other,” he wrote.

The use of waivers in New York City has been taking place for at least a few years. When Emily Listfield’s daughter was a senior at the Dalton School four years ago, she was invited to a post-prom party in the Hamptons. In order for her daughter to be allowed in, Ms. Listfield was required to sign a two-page document. She felt she had no choice but to sign. “It was the hot party, and my daughter was dying to go,” she said.

Overnight house parties for teenagers sometimes take place without parental oversight and involve alcohol. This month, a party in Sunapee, N.H., to celebrate commencement at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., ended when the police took into custody more than 70 guests suspected of underage drinking, according to David Cahill, Sunapee’s police chief. The house at which the party occurred had been rented by an 18-year-old through Airbnb, Mr. Cahill said. More than 20 Phillips Academy graduates must return to New Hampshire for a court hearing related to alcohol charges, he said.

“We are grateful to the police for keeping the students safe and, over the coming school year, we will redouble our efforts to teach the importance of good decision making,” said Tracy Sweet, the school’s director of communications.

Some parents seek explicit acknowledgment of party rules from other parents without the legalese. When Sarah Lyons of Winnetka, Ill., agreed to give a party in March after a school dance attended by her youngest daughter, Ms. Lyons sent an email to guests’ parents. “I think this is not the first rodeo for most of us but I am putting it in writing anyway,” began the letter, which then listed rules including, “No one will be allowed to leave until pick up time which is 12:45 a.m. sharp.”

Ms. Lyons also required that the children, most of them high school juniors, be picked up by parents rather than by Uber. “I didn’t want them to be vague about how they’re getting home,” she said. “I wanted my official responsibility to end at the door. These are all good kids, but they’re in high school and you have to lay down the law.” (Ms. Lyons’s introduction to dealing with high school girls came courtesy of her eldest daughter, Elizabeth Lyons, now 24 and a country music singer, who this year released the single “#PartyRules.”)

Prom-related documents can go beyond the liability waiver. When Francesca Grossman’s daughter, Gabrielle Lipkin, was invited to attend a junior prom in Los Angeles by a boy from a different school, Gabrielle had to have a form signed by an administrator of her school that attested to her good character.

“How is a child supposed to branch out from insularity?” Ms. Grossman said. “It’d be a real shame if a child declined to bring to a dance a child from another community because it’s just too much paperwork.”

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